Mitch Dunford has been a member of the high priests group in the Santee First Ward, Santee California Stake, for most of the 11 years he has lived there. “Our high priests group has studied the scriptures together and done missionary work together,” he says. “We’ve given blessings to each other and to others’ family members. Our camaraderie is a natural outgrowth of helping each other honor callings in the priesthood.”
On the night of Sunday, October 26, 2003, the high priests in the Santee stake, along with most residents of San Diego County, found themselves under attack by the largest wildfire in the history of California. For nearly 24 hours, 50- to 70-mile-per-hour (80- to 110-km-per-hour) winds had pushed 100-foot (30-m) flames and burned hundreds of homes, killing 13 people.
Mitch Dunford stood alone in the hills behind his home with a garden hose in one hand and a shovel in the other. Earlier he had taken his wife, Cathy, and their five children to a hotel. When the evacuation order was lifted, he returned home to see what he could do.
“The fire was 4 feet [1.2 m] high and 30 feet [9 m] wide,” says Brother Dunford. “It was coming from two directions. It was so quiet. I just stood there, wondering if I could really stop this fire by myself.”
Meanwhile, stake president Chris Allred was atop the stake center with binoculars. With flames coming toward the Dunfords’ house, he began making phone calls.
“I was alone,” says Brother Dunford, with more than a little emotion in his voice, “and then one by one they came—the ‘boys’ from the quorum and their sons, each with a shovel. I was overwhelmed, yet it seemed just the way it ought to be.”
Fifteen minutes later the first wave of fire swept through.
“We beat the fire down and tossed dirt on it,” says Steven Schimpf, 15, who came with his dad, Bishop Randall Schimpf.
After the first wave was out, the second wave came. They beat back that one too.
A news cameraman climbed up to the group and was amazed to discover they were just some men and boys from a church helping one of their own.
“It was touching to have our home saved by my priesthood brethren,” says Brother Dunford. “It is so typical of the way they are. My neighbors couldn’t believe all those men and boys just showed up to help. But we know it’s what you do when you’re a member of a priesthood quorum.”